NFL's freshman class takes top honors

NFL rookies once sat quietly in the corner of locker rooms, sang their college fight songs during hazing sessions, and served as understudies for a year or two before seeing significant playing time.

That was your father's NFL.

Now, coaches and teams are more likely to throw first-year players into the fray. This season, that inclination has paid off beyond anyone's wildest projections. Analysts who follow the pro game say the current class of rookie players is the best in a decade or more – perhaps ever. The road to the playoffs and, ultimately, the Super Bowl, rides, in part, on the shoulder pads of not-so-green first-year players.

Take a look around the NFL and try to find a team that hasn't had a major impact from a rookie player or two. The most obvious example: the New Orleans Saints, a vagabond team last season, ravaged by hurricane Katrina and a lousy 3-13 record. Armed with Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, the second overall pick in the 2006 draft, the Saints won the NFC South division in 2006, a startling turnaround.

Bush, who has dazzled as both a runner and a receiver during his debut season, is one of the rookie starters on the explosive New Orleans offense. Some experts say Bush's rookie teammate, receiver Marques Colston, possesses as much talent and potential as Bush, a frightening proposition for the rest of the league, not to mention the Chicago Bears, who take on the Saints on Sunday. Before Colston suffered a midseason injury that sidelined him for several weeks, he had become the NFL's most prolific receiver.

"This rookie class might be as good as we have seen in quite some time," says Jimmy Johnson, the retired coach whose résumé includes championships in the NFL and in the college ranks. "Look at all the great players who are actually competing for rookie of the year. It's been a great year for young players."

Johnson points to Bush and Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young as front-runners for NFL Rookie of the Year. Young, who led the Texas Longhorns to the national title last year, was the third overall pick in this year's draft. Even so, many experts questioned his ability to adapt to the pro game. They also wondered aloud whether Young could comprehend the complicated formations used in the NFL.

Several weeks into the season, the struggling Titans, who won just four games in 2005, handed the reins to their prized recruit. Young struggled at first, but then led the team to an 8-5 record as a starter, including a signature fourth-quarter comeback against the New York Giants and a win on the road in his hometown of Houston. The latter win was sweetened by the fact that the Texans, the team with the first pick in the draft last spring, passed on the opportunity to select a home-grown star – and then suffered a loss at his hands (and feet).

Similar success stories abound across the league. The Denver Broncos vaulted back into the playoff race late in the year, thanks in large part to the ascension of rookie quarterback Jay Cutler. Denver coach Mike Shanahan installed Cutler as the starter in Week 13 and the move immediately paid dividends. During a crucial game against Cincinnati on Dec. 24, Cutler authored a 99-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive that provided the winning margin.

Arizona rookie Matt Leinart has also demonstrated poise while playing for a mediocre team. Beyond Bush, other freshman runners with impressive performances include Joseph Addai (over 1,000 yards rushing for the Indianapolis Colts, including a four-TD game that tied a team record), Laurence Maroney (who became a backfield threat for the New England Patriots), and Maurice Jones-Drew (who set a Jacksonville Jaguars team record for all-purpose yards).

Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears earned a pro bowl nod after setting an NFL record for touchdowns scored on punt and kick returns.

Longtime draft analyst Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive, says the talented crop extends beyond the glamour positions of quarterback and running back. The Buffalo Bills featured four starters on defense several weeks ago and posted a shutout. One of the league's fiercest defenses, the Baltimore Ravens, ravaged the AFC with significant contributions from rookie starters Dawan Landry, a safety, and Haloti Ngata, a defensive tackle. Other standouts include linebackers A.J. Hawk (Green Bay Packers) and DeMeco Ryans (Texans). Ryans had the most tackles of any rookie in the past 20 years.

"The player you're getting now is a more prepared player than ever before, Mr. Brandt says, referring to the increasing sophistication of major college football programs. Most schools have enhanced weight training and nutrition programs while invoking more complex offensive and defensive schemes, mirroring the advances in the NFL.

As an example, Brandt points to the New York Jets, a team with two star rookies on the offensive line.

D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the fourth pick overall, was highly touted, but Brandt admits he's surprised by Ferguson's ability to come in and immediately succeed while playing left tackle, considered by many to be the most demanding position in football.

More rookie uprisings may be on the way next year.

Howie Long, a Hall of Fame lineman who now serves as an analyst on Fox NFL Sunday, points to Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn as a prime example.

Quinn will be part of the 2007 NFL draft and comes with a sterling pedigree, including a college coach (Charlie Weis) who shaped the career of NFL star Tom Brady.

"[Charlie] said to me the other day that in three years he'll be the third-best quarterback in the NFL," Long says. "That's pretty lofty praise."

And bad news for NFL defenses.

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